PARIS - The "war on terror" in the aftermath of the attacks of Sep. 11, 2001 has undermined human rights globally, according to activists and experts who attended a UN conference in Paris.
"Immediately after Sep. 11 we saw a dramatic change in government policies with regard to terrorism, suspected terrorism, and the monitoring of citizens, with the underlying assumption that human rights norms as established in conventions and treaties no longer apply," Joanne Mariner, director of the terrorism and counter-terrorism programme at Human Rights Watch said at the conference in Paris last week.
The trend has worsened over the last seven years, Mariner said.
Some 2,000 human rights experts and activists attended the annual United Nations Department of Public Information Non-Governmental Organisations Conference.
The UN DPI/NGO conference on 'Reaffirming Human Rights for All: The Universal Declaration at 60' was held at the headquarters of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The conference this year commemorated the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in Paris in December 1948.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a video message that the delegates were gathered "to commemorate one of humankind's greatest achievements."
But it was not a celebratory mood at the conference. The meeting was dominated by the sense that human rights have been globally weakened by the war between "terrorism and counter-terrorism" both at the national and the international level.
Mariner told a conference roundtable on Human Rights and Human security that the U.S. suppression of rights was only part of a global trend. "Nearly 80 countries have adopted counter-terrorism legislation since September 2001," Mariner said.
"There is a global pattern to suppress the rights and freedoms of individuals through new laws. These laws cut back on individual rights and human rights norms, and have greatly increased government powers to investigate, detain, and imprison people with minimum judicial oversight, minimum transparency, and very little procedural safeguards."
Mariner and other participants blamed some UN institutions for cooperating with this suppression of human rights. "Within the UN, the balance of power on the question of human rights has tilted in favour of the Security Council and the bodies it has created specifically to deal with the issue of terrorism," Mariner said.
The UN Security Council, Mariner said, has been passing resolution after resolution on terrorism, all of which have a marked "legislative character", requiring states to pass ever new laws against suspected terrorism, to spot the flow of money, on migration, and to incarcerate suspects.
Workshops at the conference covered issues such as 'Addressing Gross Human Rights Violations: Prevention and Accountability', 'Dealing with the Past in Post-Conflict Societies: Community-Based Responses to Genocide and Mass Violence', and 'The Right to Know, the Right to Truth: How Archives and Records help Combat Impunity'.
Daniel Bekele, head of policy research and advocacy at Action Aid Ethiopia, and a former prisoner of conscience in his country, said African civil society activism has been growing over the past few years. "But, at the same time, a significant number of countries on the continent have been abusing their muscle to silence civil society organisations, in particular those who work on human rights issues. The pretext is the protection of national, regional or sometimes even international security concerns."
The conference also explored education as a human right. Ahead of the International Year of Human Rights Learning to be launched Dec. 10, and as a complement to the World Programme for Human Rights Education (2005-2009), the conference considered ways of advancing education, learning and dialogue about human rights as a way of life.
The conference considered practical measures to integrate human rights education and learning into the programmes and activities of governments, civil society, media and the Internet, faith-based organisations, academics and the private sector, with a view to developing a learning process at the community level worldwide.